Up to 120 delegates attended UCU’s Cradle to Grave education conference on Saturday 7th February. Key note speakers included Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and former Guardian Weekly editor Zoe Williams, the leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, and Chair of the pressure group Compass, Neal Lawson. Speakers were generally scathing about the Coalition and the impact of marketization on education and the principles of open, free, democratically run education, but short of ideas on how to promote this other than hope for a Labour victory (or a Labour/Green coalition) at the May general election.
A number of contributors from the floor as well as some of the speakers were clear about Labour’s lacklustre opposition, politically committed as they are to the same market ethos as the Tories. While none of the main contributors directly addressed the level of racism against migrants and the Islamophobia in the general election campaign, or the worrying growth of support for Ukip, several of the contributions from the floor were scathing about Labour’s failures to challenge this and the role that we as educators could and should play to resist this drift to the political right.
Various workshops were addressed by a range of academic and political figures and the NUS Vice President for HE, Megan Dunn.
Conference was opened by UCU President Liz Lawrence who pointed to the recent victory of Syriza in Greece as a bright spot in an otherwise unremitting picture of austerity and cuts across Europe and for post-16 education.
While Polly Toynbee and others argued that the stakes are so high in the coming election that a vote for Labour had to be the only realistic option, others were more sceptical and were clearly looking for a serious alternative to the left of Labour. Several were highly critical of Labour’s failure to challenge the cuts, and their implementation of hugely damaging cuts locally by Labour councils.
The day overall was quite top-heavy – lots of top table speakers but not enough time or space for contributions from the floor in the plenary sessions and workshops. The workshops were not really workshops at all, more like mini-meetings which were not focused on practical outcomes. There were no report backs from other workshops (delegates could only attend one) so no-one had a clue what might have come out of other workshops.
UCU Left supporters made a range of contributions which flagged up how we can resist the attacks and cuts in post-16 education as well as the responsibility that our union has to promote an egalitarian, democratic and inclusive vision of education, and how we can encourage our members and branches to engage in the election campaign to address our critical concerns.
The conference, while well-attended, did not fulfil its potential. We needed a working conference which could identify key themes and mobilise members but instead we got a traditional top-down event with what felt like a mainly HE bias, despite the presence of a large proportion of FE delegates.
It could, for example, have agreed a general statement and have identified a check list of suggestions for branch and regional activities and meetings, but these remained at the level of (generally well-received) suggestions from the floor which sought to reflect the clear mood of deep concern and anger among delegates about the Coalition’s austerity programme and cuts.
These suggestions included a number of ways we can engage with the key issues during the election period. These could be branch meetings or meetings involving a number of branches in a town or city.
- In FE, an event to launch the UCU Further and Adult Education Charter. This could include invitations to local figures and politicians as well as UCU speakers. Here is the link:
- Organise a branch meeting to launch the UCU/CLASS pamphlet on the myths of immigration pamphlet. Link here: http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/e/3/whyimmigrationisgoodforallofus_oct14.pdf
We should order copies of this for every branch member.
- Organise a general election hustings and urge members to take part in political lobbying on behalf of FE/HE.